By Robin Pridham
Bronze has been in use since the dawn of civilization. It is one the oldest alloys known to man and came into use around the 4th millennium B.C. The first use of bronze came out of the Sumer region, which is currently southern Iraq, and then, sequentially, from India and China. then spreading from there. This period was known as the Bronze Age.
The Bronze Age lasted until about 1300 BC when a new metal was discovered. This was iron. Iron was more plentiful and easier to produce and eventually overshadowed the use of bronze as a utilitarian alloy. Bronze continues to be an important medium to this day, used in various industrial applications, but its true beauty can be experienced in the form of bronze sculpture. Bronze was initially made by combining copper and tin, about 85% copper and 15% tin. Over time, other metals were added in various combinations such as aluminum, nickel or manganese to afford the end product various properties of strength or flexibility. Non-metal additives such as arsenic or silicon were also used to meet the same objectives. The word “patina” refers to the finish applied to a bronze sculpture. This is achieved by using chemical mixtures that have a reaction to the bronze when applied. The art of patination is a skill set of its own, where master craftsmen are usually employed to create the desired effect.
Casting sculpture in bronze is truly one of the classic art forms. It happens to be one of my personal favourite mediums and something that I am always on the hunt for. Considering the size and complexity of the subject as it relates to the countless artists who have used this medium, it might be useful to mention what to look for when considering purchasing something that has caught your eye. The first thing to determine is if the sculpture is an original or reproduction. This is really important if you intend to purchase for investment purposes, or if there is a considerable price tag associated with the item. It can also be a tricky business. You should consult an expert when considering your purchase. A trusted antique dealer, gallery or auction house would be the best place, unless you have a high level of personal knowledge. It can take many years of experience to determine fakes or reproductions from the originals.
Okay, you have found yourself an original work of art; you like the subject matter and are considering a purchase. The next thing to consider is the quality of the casting. This is big for me and should be for you. Start with the face, if there is one, and look for crispness in the features. It should be life-like with no bleeding of the features. Next are the hands; they are notoriously difficult for many artists and are a good indication of quality. Look for life-like fingers and nails that are well defined. If the subject is an animal, this would apply to fur or feathers etc. You want a crisp, quality casting. So, at this point you are quite sure you have an original. It is crisply cast and is starting to set off your internal barometer, that little voice that says “I think this is a really good thing.”
Now you should check carefully to see if the patina enhances the overall appearance of the bronze or if it is applied too liberally, perhaps to mask imperfections. Is the colour appropriate and complimentary to the subject matter? Maybe it is cold painted, a technique that involved applying several layers of lead based paint to the bronze. This was primarily used with the famed Austrian bronzes.
Lastly, is it signed? This is really important. Most quality works will be signed by the artist and often times also have a foundry mark. A well-recognized French or American foundry is a good sign of quality leading to desirability of the piece. Now you are armed with some good basic information about what to look for when shopping for a bronze sculpture. This is the fun part because the world is filled with great works.
Rodin is considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, but you would likely have to nip down to Christie’s or Sotheby’s in New York to pick one up. Prices can actually be quite reasonable, in around a few thousand dollars and going up from there. Talk about your crisp casting, this guy was the master. Perhaps the rough and eroded style of Alberto Giacometti is more to your taste. Swiss born and active in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Giacometti is famous for his depictions of elongated subjects, particularly people. Much sought after today, you would have to plunk down a minimum of $80,000 and up. Nice if you can find it.
One of my favourite collecting areas is that of Austrian bronzes. I like them for many reasons, not the least of which is their affordability. You can most definitely end up with a great quality-price ratio. Starting around the end of the 19th century, over 50 manufacturers existed in and around Austria producing high quality tabletop bronzes. They depicted life-like subjects such as pets and farm animals, but also a line that reflected the increasing interest in the Orient at the time. Austrian bronzes were labour intensive to produce and required a very high level of craftsmanship. The telltale sign of an Austrian bronze is the cold painted technique used to decorate the work. Done with lead paint, it took many layers to achieve the desired effect. The quality of the painting had a lot to do with the overall desirability of the finished product.
The best known of all the Austrian bronze artists was Franz Xaver Bergmann (1861-1936). He was really the driving force behind the Vienna bronze boom. His pieces are marked with a “B” within a vase. Bergmann is famous for his depictions of oriental scenes involving camels, carpet sellers and oasis scenes surrounded by palm trees. His works are so realistic they easily whisk you away to a forgotten time. His work is in much demand, so prices for a good piece can be modest at under $1,000 rising easily to $6,000. Carl Kauba is another lesser-known artist from the region who focused on indigenous people and cowboys. Generally speaking, the vast majority of Austrian bronzes will be small animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, farm animals and birds. They are very attainable, with prices ranging from $100-$500 depending on the size, subject and condition. With so many factories producing at the turn of the century, supply is fairly prolific so collecting quality pieces is very attainable and fun, without breaking the bank. Keep your eyes peeled at antique shows, markets and auctions. With your newfound knowledge you may end up scoring big.
I have always maintained that buying the best you can afford is the right approach to buying antiques. Buying bronzes is no exception. They are another facet of the decorative arts world that will add yet another layer of culture and enrichment to your life. Whether it is work from the classics or the fun and whimsical Austrian bronzes, start small with what you can afford and learn from your purchases. You will be happy you did. Until next time, happy hunting.
1 – Austrian Hummingbird vide-poche with marble base, $150-$250
2 – Bergmann bronze figure of a running desert warrior, $2,000-3,000 Cdn
3 – Austrian covered box with Setter, estimate $800-$1,200 Previous column: Quality antique auctions are a treasured experience